Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Columbia culture wars: a dead horse gets deader

I was interviewed recently for a TV news story on the "Columbia Unbecoming" controversy at Columbia University. The result is a mixed bag, especially regarding choice of interview clips: no talking head makes a convincing case, and much attention is given to irrelevant details.

The video, from the Australian program "Dateline" (no relationship to the American "Dateline"), can be viewed here until the end of 2006; click the video box on the right, and then scroll down to "8 November: Academic Freedom Battle in America". The transcript is also available.

Here's the context:

I went to college at Columbia University, and took three courses with professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department. One course, "Israeli and Palestinian Cultures and Societies", was taught in alternating years by a Jewish and a Muslim professor, and I took it with the Muslim professor, Joseph Massad. There were lots of debates in class between students and Massad, and students and each other, but the tone was always civil. Massad was very opinionated, and made a point to respond at length to every question posed by students, but delighted in doing so calmly.

When, in the last weeks of the course, I heard that another student had found the class so offensive that she asked a dean to attend a session (the dean declined), I was completely surprised. I knew that the many pro-Israel students in the class disagreed with Massad's views, and I the class would have been more balanced if we read more pro-Zionist writing than just two books by early proponent Theodor Herzl, but I assumed from the frequent in-class debates that everyone felt the class was conducted fairly and pro-Israel points of view were being heard.

I was very wrong. In 2003, several students and faculty members formally complained that MEALAC had an anti-Israel bias. (One example of evidence cited was a petition for divestment from Israel signed by faculty members; in MEALAC, 11 out of 23 professors signed it.) The University formed an investigative committee, which concluded that there was no evidence of misconduct.

Then in 2004, an organization called The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership produced a short documentary film, "Columbia Unbecoming", that accused the Columbia MEALAC department of systemic bias against Israel and pro-Israel Jewish students. (The transcript, but not the film itself, is available online; I have asked to see the film but received no response.)

Students testify in the film that three professors--Massad, George Saliba and Hamid Dabashi, with whom I also took a course--suppressed pro-Israel views in and out of class. Most of the allegations boil down to nothing more than intense conversations--no one alleges any discrimination in grades, advising and mentoring, or seminar admittance--but a few accuse the professors of kicking students out of class or out of their office during arguments.

The University formed a second investigative committee, due largely to pressure from a huge effort in the conservative media to condemn the university. Among others, Nat Hentoff, a defender of the freedom of people to say unpopular things, chose to agree with the David Project's view that it was students' freedoms of speech and thought, and not professors', that were at risk.

I testified before the second investigative committee, in general defense of the professors. But I don't view this in the stark terms of McCarthyism that others of their defenders do. First, the committee members were patient, attentive, and curious, and seemed not to have pre-formed opinions; their published conclusion disagreed with my testimony, but did note my dissent.

Second, the testimony of students in the "Columbia Unbecoming" film may be exaggerated--I doubt that George Saliba's supposed vaguely menacing gesture really happened--but it seems sincere. As criticism of these professors' personal styles and polemical excesses, the film makes some valid points, and profesors are not so sacred that they deserve to be spared public description of their less stellar moments. It's just that it never should have been taken seriously as a critique of academic standards, by the media or by the University.

The frightening thing about this controversy is that it is only the latest in a string of baseless ados that target Columbia professors with unpopular views. (Nicholas De Genova's legitimately awful call for "a million Mogadishus" is an exception.) The University professes to be immune to the opinions of the public and its alumni, but of course it isn't, and its role as a magnet for the Edward Said-Gayatri Spivak crowd is declining.

With such high stakes, it's awkward that the professors themselves, and other students who defend them, do such a poor job of making their case. Thanks to the recent Minutemen controversy at Columbia--another case where run-of-the-mill campus disagreement was handled ineptly by the University, which shut the event down instead of ejecting the protesters--Columbia student Monique Dols is becoming a television face of the campus left. It would be hard to find a less helpful ally. In the Australian news bit, she fights fire with fire, repeating what has become an unfortunate refrain for defenders of the professors: that there were disruptive interlopers in Massad's class, and therefore Massad, not students, was the one cowed. This is ridiculous; I took the class with Dols, and don't recall anyone being purely confrontive, and anyway Massad takes pleasure in riling feathers and is more than capable of handling anyone's confontational questions.

As for the professors themselves, the controversy has succeeded in bringing out the worst in them and confirming the prejudices of their opponents. They would do much better to declare the accusations hurtful, baseless and distracting, refer doubters to their online syllabuses, invite all students and interested parties to their office hours, and say they need to get back to work. Then again, they're the ones receiving death threats, not me.

Here is an excerpt of the transcript from the Australia program; my apologies that more informative, and flattering, clips from my interview were not chosen. And for the record, I suggested to a Zionist former classmate that he give an interview too, but he declined.

News of the film sent New York's tabloids into a frenzy. They described Columbia variously as: “Poison Ivy”, “Hate-U on the Hudson”, and teaching “Hate 101”. Prominent amongst those accused in the film of intimidating students, Joseph Massad.

ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: Remember, as soon as this defamatory film had been released, a member of Congress in New York immediately called on Columbia University to fire me, the editorial board of two newspapers in New York also called on Columbia to fire me, there was a special meeting of the New York City Council about the situation of alleged intimidation that pro-Israel Jewish students had been subjected to at Columbia.

Some of Professor Massad's students, like Monique Dols, leapt to his defence.

MONIQUE DOLS, COLUMBIA STUDENT: We often had people who were outside of the class come into the class and disrupt the class and so on how so? Well, they would sit in the back of the room. They said they were auditors but they were clearly there to comment and disrupt Professor Massad's class. So if anyone was being intimidated, it was the professors like Professor Massad.

In Brooklyn, I track down another of Joseph Massad's former students, Ben Wheeler.

BEN WHEELER, FORMER COLUMBIA STUDENT: I'm Jewish. And when I was in Hebrew school, growing up, the very simple description of Israel and Palestine that I heard was that there was an uninhabited desert wasteland, and after the Holocaust the Jews needed a homeland and this land was available and so they made the desert bloom. And there was sort of no mention of the Palestinians. And if there ever was, it was essentially that, yeah, there are some people who aren't happy about it because they don't like Jews.

Ben says Joseph Massad did present a pro-Palestinian position but he did not browbeat students.

BEN WHEELER: There was certainly a mixed reaction among the Jewish American students. I think that a lot of students were offended by the particular facts that Massad was choosing to focus on and talk about, many of them, partially because they hadn't known those facts. And I think a lot of students were surprised or shocked to hear the criticism of Israel that was more intense and more cogent than perhaps they were expecting.

But 'Columbia Unbecoming' and the media campaign orchestrated by the David Project, had its impact. University President Lee Bollinger, who declined to be interviewed for this story, initiated an investigation.

ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: I think this was a terrible precedent. The only precedent I can think of that is similar would be during McCarthyism when university would crack down and set up committees to investigate professors for their political views. I was very saddened to see that the administration had in fact cooperated with these outside forces against its own professors and its own faculty.

The investigation cleared the professors, with one minor exception for Joseph Massad. It was found he had threatened to banish a student from his class for defending Israeli military tactics. It's an allegation he continues to deny - 20 students present in the class have signed a letter saying the allegation is "unequivocally false".

ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: So basically they threw a morsel for the right-wing forces that were besieging the university. And instead of standing by academic freedom, instead of saying this is clearly a sham of an allegation, that there was not an element of truth to it.... This was not actually a legal procedure. This was a committee, in my opinion a harassment committee, an inquisition committee, that did not give, sort of, the right of habeas corpus or due process to the accused.